Empathizing With Trump Voters Right Now

Supporters of President-elect Donald Trump hold signs at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 7, 2016. Trump won the state with 51 percent of the vote. Chris Keane / Reuters

A long-time reader, Ben, tries to understand what drove so many Americans to elect Donald Trump yesterday:

So to get it out of the way: I didn’t vote for Trump. So I don’t like the results any better than you and your magazine do. But I did consider supporting Trump here and there, so I think I probably have a slightly better-than-average answer to “how could this have happened?” And I really think it’s kind of simple: Some people voted for Trump, but way more people voted for “stop calling me names and being a bully.”

I think the left was right on gay marriage, at least in the sense of “it should be legal if the government is going to have their hands in it.” But immediately after it became an inevitability, it also became a club: If your pizza place/cake baking business/photography business doesn’t want to be part of it, you get vilified and threatened. If the fringier parts of the left had its way, Brendan Eich’s ouster would have been duplicated a thousand times.

I think the left is right that black people are still treated like a subclass and don’t get anywhere near a fair shake. But traveling down the right road, there were plenty of pit stops that signaled that free speech was an acceptable sacrifice. There was a more-than-general smattering of clues that private opinions would be dug out at any cost and used to get you fired from your job.

The far left took a gamble that calling half the country racist, backwoods, bigoted hicks wouldn’t unite them under literally any alternate flag. It said, “If you aren’t 100 percent with us, you are 100 percent evil” without considering that inevitably this would result in absolutely no motivation for anyone on the right to shift even a little to the left. Give people the impression that you will hate them the same or nearly so for voting Jeb Bush as compared to voting for Trump, and where is the motivation to be socially acceptable with Jeb?

The far left took the gamble, and the moderate left backed them up with a range of active support and silence. And somebody popped up who said whatever he wanted. People called him a racist bigot idiot who wouldn’t fit in in San Francisco, and it bounced off. So he’s a racist and a bigot for real. You think people wouldn't envy his bulletproof vest?

If the left had been responsible with its dominance of culture, media, and social mores, this would have been an easy win for them—more than that, Trump would have never been possible. I would have liked that. At the same time, it’s hard to feel guilty when I see a lot of people who just got done saying “We will destroy everything you believe in and make it impossible to be anything but us” for years and now finding out it backfired.

A bully can be right and still be a bully. The bullied can be wrong and still fight back. I hope this lesson is understood and remembered.

Disagree with Ben? Or, are you an American who voted for Donald Trump and would like to share your thoughts right now? Please send us a note and we’ll post: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from reader Adam, who has a strong dissent against Ben:

I’m a San Francisco native (so yea, a bleeding heart liberal) completing a masters program in Kansas, where I’ve encountered plenty of Trump support, and specifically the sorts of embittered White culture Ben describes. While I’ve met plenty of people on the social right-wing who feel bullied as Ben describes, I do disagree that they have any right to their victimhood—specifically on gay rights and the harassment of business owners who refused service to gay customers.